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Linda Tirado's Poverty Tale: Not Quite Fake, Far From Accurate

By Cathy Young - December 13, 2013

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The more complete version of Tirado’s story contradicts her point in other ways.  It leaves little doubt, for instance, that her bad choices are not the result of her poverty but to a large extent its cause—as she herself more or less concedes in her autobiographical note, admitting that she spent much of her young adulthood avoiding adult responsibility: “I chased dreams that I couldn't afford for longer than was strictly necessary, and only gave that up when children made life suddenly more stable.” 

In his defense of Tirado, The Huffington Post’s Grim gets caught in another contradiction, writing that people are skeptical of Tirado’s story because they don’t realize how common it is  for people to “spend at least a few of their adult years in poverty.” He cites research by George Washington University economist Mark Rank, showing that “fully 85 percent of Americans by age 60 will have experienced unemployment, sharply lower income, poverty or the use of welfare for at least a year of their adult lives.” Yet these statistics also demonstrate social mobility: for the vast majority of people, economic setbacks are surmountable and poverty is not a life sentence.

Grim accuses the right of seeking to disqualify Tirado for ideological reasons, because her essay “runs counter to conservative beliefs about poverty and the role of government.”  But, of course, one can just as easily put the shoe on the other foot. The left was eager to embrace Tirado because her essay supports liberal beliefs about poverty in America: that the poor bear no responsibility for improving their lives; that any bad decisions they make are caused by poverty itself, and thus blameless; that our society is callous and cruel toward the needy. (Ironically, in the video clip in which she shows her missing teeth, Tirado excoriates America’s failure to provide affordable dental care to low-income people—but also rather sheepishly admits that she could have availed herself of free or low-cost options she didn’t know about.) 

Indeed, on some websites, left-wing commenters have openly taken the “fake but accurate” attitude toward Tirado’s veracity. As one poster put it, “her powerfully accurate message goes beyond the stunted perceptions of those who refuse to understand how writers often combine their experiences with that of others to drive home a point.”

Some poor people in America really are trapped at the bottom, for socioeconomic and psychological reasons.  Some are victims of terrible life circumstances; others, of a multigenerational cycle of poverty and dysfunction that only the exceptionally strong-willed and talented can overcome on their own.  Such people need help (whether through government services or private and religious networks is another question), and simply lecturing them on responsibility is a sure way to come across as callous and smug.  But even in these cases, using poverty as an excuse for reckless behavior and accepting defeatism as natural is, for obvious reasons, a bad idea.  And there is nothing “brave” or “powerful” about extending the mantle of victimhood and absolution from responsibility to anyone who has ever fallen on hard times.

Like millions of Americans, Linda Tirado is going to overcome temporary poverty through a combination of hard work, help from family, kindness of strangers, and sheer luck.  It’s too bad that the key to her success will have been a message that perpetuates the poverty trap.

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Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She blogs at http://cathyyoung.wordpress.com/ and you can follow her on Twitter at @CathyYoung63. She can be reached by email at CathyYoung63@gmail.com.

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